MAGGIE WITTLIN Column Archive
Computer programmer Peter Shann Ford used a $45 audio editing program to acquit Neil Armstrong of flubbing his most famous line. To the naked ear, recordings of Armstrong’s broadcast from the Moon sound like the former astronaut said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’—a sentence that turns out to be a self-contradictory mess, since “man” and “mankind” are synonymous. But Ford’s analysis showed that Armstrong correctly said,
“That’s one small step for a man,”correctly inserting the indefinite article. The “a” was covered by static in the transmission, simply spoken too quickly to be appropriately picked up by the technology of the day, Ford said. Armstrong, who himself can’t remember whether the “scarlet letter” slipped from his tongue that fateful day, said he finds Ford’s analysis and conclusion “persuasive.” He had previously noted that he had intended to insert the appropriate article and asked history to grant him “leeway for dropping the syllable.” None needed, Mr. Armstrong.
The Heat of the Moment
Recent research out of McGill University reveals that men and women take approximately equal amounts of time to reach peak sexual arousal. When members of both sexes watched pornographic films, men took an average of 665 seconds, around 11 minutes, to become maximally aroused, while women hit their peak at 743 seconds—a difference that the researchers say is not statistically significant. The authors measured arousal using an advanced thermal imaging camera that measured very slight changes in the temperature of the subjects’ genitals. Subjects sat naked from the waist down as they watched, first, video of the Canadian countryside (so the researchers could get a baseline reading) and then either pornography, horror clips, or comedic clips from the Best Bits of Mr. Bean, while the researchers monitored changes in temperature to find out when they peaked. Subjects’ genital temperature only changed when they watched the pornography, not the horror or comedy clips. What, no Rowan Atkinson fans in the house?
A Large Slice of the Pi
Compulsive memorizers, kneel before your God. Akira Haraguchi, a 60-year-old mental health counselor, recited pi to 100,000 decimal places at a public hall just outside of Tokyo last week. Haraguchi took 16 hours to complete the Guinness Record-breaking feat, taking a five minute break to go to the bathroom and eat rice balls every hour or two. He videotaped the full 16 hours, including his bathroom breaks, and he plans to send the footage to Guinness soon. Haraguchi needs to memorize a mere 1.24 trillion more decimal places before he catches up with the University of Tokyo mathematicians who, in 2002, set a record for computing the irrational number to the most digits. Get crackin’, gramps.
Earlier this year, thieves broke into Exmoor Zoo in Devon, stealing 11 tiny marmoset monkeys from their cages. Shaken by their loss, the zoo has vowed never to let their primates be kidnapped again. They’ve hired two howler monkeys to act as vigilantes and protect the little ones. Armed with ridiculously loud vocals and perfectly gangster-esque names, howlers Greeb and Wing will stand guard and hopefully scream their lungs out if someone suspicious approaches the cage. Woe be it unto any burglar who decides to steal the howlers along with the marmosets: The living alarms weigh up to 15 kg, use their tail like a fifth limb, have large teeth and will bite if provoked, making them perfect anti-theft machines and horrible hostages. The zookeepers say they hope the monkeys will soon have children. Apparently Exmoor Zoo is to become the breeding facility for a monkey-protecting slave-race. On a positive note, the 11 stolen monkeys were found, unharmed, after a massive search, and they are now back at the zoo.
Comedy Central, News Peripheral-But-Present
If watching the news makes you cry, try tuning into Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart instead. And don’t worry about trading hard-hitting journalism for fluff: A recent study by an Indiana University professor has concluded that The Daily Show is just as substantive as network news coverage. Telecommunications professor Julia R. Fox analyzed network news programs and Daily Show episodes from the 2004 presidential election, concentrating on shows airing during the political conventions and the first presidential debate. The professor and her news-monitoring colleagues, or the “Fox news team,” divided up Daily Show coverage into humor and substance and network coverage into hype and substance, where hype included referring to polls, political endorsements and photo ops. In both cases, the amount of substance paled in comparison to the mass of more entertaining and less informative material. The study did not investigate the bastion of unsullied journalistic excellence that is The Colbert Report.
A little prohibition may go a long way toward preventing the harmful effects of the Devil’s drink, according to a recent study. When “blue laws,” remnants from our Puritan past that ban Sunday alcohol sales, were repealed in New Mexico in 1995, Sunday traffic crashes increased by 29 percent, and traffic-related fatalities increased by 42 percent. Fifteen states still have similar Sunday bans, but the alcohol industry is putting pressure on the states to repeal them. “Today’s study finds that the Sunday ban saved lives and prevented hundreds of injuries and fatalities from alcohol-related crashes,” said study co-author Garnett McMillan. The study does not appear to address the consequences of the other popular kind of blue laws: those that prohibit Sunday car sales. Well, obviously, if we want to reduce car accidents we should ban car, rather than alcohol, sales.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not I Can’t Believe It’s Science
Next time a hiccuping science nerd asks if he can get your digits, think very carefully before you answer: Two medical case reports titled “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage” were among those honored at the 16th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony last week. Other winners included: for Biology, a paper showing that the female malaria mosquito is equally attracted to the odors of limburger cheese and human feet; for Peace, the invention of a device that emits an irritating high-pitched noise designed to be audible only to teenagers—it has been used both to repel the darn kids and to create cell phone rings that only they can hear (Zeitgeisted!); and for Mathematics, the calculation of the number of photographs needed to almost ensure that nobody in the picture has closed eyes (Zeitgeisted!). The theme of this year’s ceremony was “Inertia,” and the evening featured a mini-opera, “Inertia Makes the World Go Around,” about two sisters, one of whom is at rest and tends to stay at rest, one of whom is in motion and tends to stay in motion, and the little boy who tries to control them. How gender normative.
Originally published October 9, 2006